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The Defenses and Penalties for a Probation Violation

What can you argue if you violate parole in Tennessee?

Although probation is considered by some people to be a “get out jail free” card, in reality, it is a serious sanction for criminal behavior. When a Tennessee court sentences a defendant to probation, that person is required to strictly comply with a number of conditions. Any failure to comply may serve as grounds to revoke probation and send the defendant to jail to serve the remainder of their sentence.

What Constitutes a Probation Violation?

At sentencing, a judge will inform the defendant of any conditions attached to probation. Every case is different, but in general Tennessee courts may require any or all of the following:

  • The defendant must meet their “family responsibilities”
  • The defendant must obtain employment or pursue a course of vocational training
  • The defendant may not possess any firearms or other “dangerous” weapons
  • The defendant must meet all scheduled appointments with his or her parole officer
  • The defendant must remain within a particular geographic area—e.g., not leave the county—unless granted permission by their parole officer or the court
  • If the defendant has a substance abuse problem, he or she must successfully undergo counseling and treatment—as well as submit to regular drug testing
  • The defendant must perform community service
  • The defendant must pay any court costs or fines arising from the original sentence
  • The defendant must refrain from committing any additional crimes

Tennessee probation officers have wide discretion when deciding how to handle a defendant's violation of any terms or conditions of release. For minor infractions, such as being late for an appointment, the probation officer may simply issue a warning. For more serious violations, however, the defendant will likely have to appear before a judge to explain his or her actions.

Proving a Probation Violation in Court

When the court is notified of a possible probation violation, a judge will issue an arrest warrant for the defendant. The defendant must then appear at a hearing where prosecutors will present evidence of the alleged violation. Just as in a normal trial, the defendant has the right to advice and assistance from a qualified Tennessee criminal defense lawyer, and to present evidence in his or her own defense.

There is one critical difference between a hearing to revoke probation and a criminal trial. In the latter, the prosecution must prove a defendant's guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But when it comes to an alleged probation violation, the prosecution need only prove its case by a “preponderance of the evidence,” which is a lower standard of proof commonly used in civil trials.

Even with this reduced standard, there must still be some credible evidence of a violation. And not all violations warrant sending a defendant to jail. For example, Tennessee courts have held that a defendant's financial inability to pay criminal fines or court costs is not grounds for revoking probation. A judge may also take a defendant's explanation for any probation violation into account when deciding whether jail is the most appropriate sanction. As an alternative, the judge may decide to simply modify and extend the defendant's probation for up to two more years.

For more information on this area of law, see our overview of criminal defense.

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